Episode #9: It’s Time to Dump Those Financial Literacy Classes


Working under stressful, unhealthy conditions is an ailment in the field of social work that mutes the voices of social workers, leads to burn out, and ultimately results in poor services to our clients. Worker-owned cooperatives offer an alternative to the hyper-capitalistic model we’re all familiar with by giving power back to us – the workers – as collective owners of our work. It also enables us to center our values instead of our profit-margins. Listen and learn about the benefits of worker-owned cooperatives, and then get out there and take back social work!

Full Transcript:

Drew:                   You’re listening to Decolonize Social Work – a conversation about social work, oppression, and liberation. I’m your co-host Drew.

Ondine:               And I’m your co-host Ondine.

Drew:                   Ready?

Ondine:               I’m ready.

Drew:                   Okay. New episode.

Ondine:               That’s great.

Drew:                   What’s up?

Ondine:               What’s up? Today we’re going to talk about cooperatives.

Drew:                   We are.

Ondine:               But I was wondering if you could give us an update about the stuff that you’ve been doing lately.

Drew:                   Well, it’s a new year, 2020.

Ondine:               That’s right.

Drew:                   You know what that means?

Ondine:               It means that it’s 2020.

Drew:                   Well, that, but new year, new Good Reads challenge.

Ondine:               Oh, that’s right. Tell us, what is your challenge?

Drew:                   To redo the challenge I failed at last year. Last year I decided ambitiously to read 40 books, which might seem like a lot to people. It might seem like peanuts to people, but for me it was a reasonable goal. I only did 17.

Ondine:               What would this sound like though from a social work strengths based perspective?

Drew:                   Those are 17 books that you might not have read.

Ondine:               That’s right.

Drew:                   Had you not been working towards that. Yep, that’s a good reframe. Most of those, that 17, were some very furiously read graphic novels the last couple of weeks of December, too.

Ondine:               I’m in touch with that.

Drew:                   Yeah. I’m ahead this year so far. I’m almost two books in so far. I feel good about this pace. I’m reading this book called The Deep by River Solomon.

Ondine:               All right.

Drew:                   It’s been pretty good. But yeah, it feels funny, right? Because it’s like we just had an episode come out, but that episode was also recorded in October.

Ondine:               Well, we don’t know when this one’s actually going to drop either.

Drew:                   I was going to say, I know. We could be talking to people in the future at this moment, because by that time, we’ll be in the past.

Ondine:               Isn’t that always how it’s going to go?

Drew:                   Yeah, but you don’t know it.

Ondine:               All right, back to the future.

Drew:                   What’s been going on with you?

Ondine:               Well, I have been really into a video game called Overwatch. For folks who are not into video games, this is a multi person sort of team oriented first person shooter, as they call them, where you have to capture an objective. Matches last anywhere from three to eight minutes.

Drew:                   Are you playing with other people online?

Ondine:               Yes.

Drew:                   Nice.

Ondine:               You’re playing with people all over. Now, this game, I think there are a lot of younger folks that play. By younger I mean maybe teenagers.

Drew:                   This isn’t the popular hangout for older millennials, you mean?

Ondine:               We’re on there, but I don’t know.

Drew:                   We are on there.

Ondine:               Actually, some good friends of ours also play, and sometimes we’ll group up and play together and we talk to each other over our headsets. This sounds really nerdy.

Drew:                   You know what’s funny though? Is it kind of ties together, because I know in that game, thee key to success is cooperation.

Ondine:               Cooperation, oh my gosh.

Drew:                   You did that on purpose, didn’t you?

Ondine:               No.

Drew:                   Really?

Ondine:               Take us in.

Drew:                   Take us in. This podcast we resolve to have conversations that move us towards the destination of decolonization. We’ve talked about what that means in the past. Sometimes these aren’t really quick fixes. Sometimes these are encouragements. These are incremental steps to get closer to that ideal. One of the ones that we want to talk about is kind of a good compliment to our last one about labor unions. We’re still going to talk about labor, but today we’re going to talk more organizationally and how it’s structured, and-

Ondine:               And alternatives.

Drew:                   An alternative to what probably every single one of us currently work in, which is a hierarchical structure.

Ondine:               That’s right.

Drew:                   You probably have a board of directors, you probably have an executive director or a CEO. What we’re going to talk about is an alternative to that, something called a cooperative.

Ondine:               Specifically a worker owned co-op.

Drew:                   Yep.

Ondine:               We’ve got a bunch of resourced pulled up that we’re going to pull from for this conversation. As always, I will make sure those go out over the social media so that you all can look at them yourselves. But very briefly, worker cooperative is a business that’s owned and controlled by the workers. They’re the members. They typically contribute their own labor to the cooperative, and each worker has one vote. So, essentially, everybody who’s there has say in the direction of the organization.

Drew:                   So, to kind of give an example of that, instead of just getting hired at a place at an entry level and you not really having a lot of say in the input that you would get paid, the hiring people maybe not even having a lot of say in what you get paid. This cooperative model, you would all work together to decide, “Okay, we’re bringing this person in as a new cooperative owner/worker, and so we’re going to come to a consensus about what you’re going to get paid, and there’s input from everywhere.” Is that kind of an example, you would say?

Ondine:               Maybe, yeah.

Drew:                   You can also say no.

Ondine:               Well, I think… let’s pull it back a little bit.

Drew:                   Okay.

Ondine:               And make it less about what happens if somebody gets hired in. Basically, several folks could come together. Let me use a tangible example, right?

Drew:                   Yeah, that’s what I was trying to do and I don’t think I did it very well.

Ondine:               It was okay.

Drew:                   Again, you can say no.

Ondine:               All right. Let’s say that we like to watch people’s pets for them.

Drew:                   Okay.

Ondine:               That we’re good cat sitters and dog walkers and we do that for our friends. We have a couple other friends, actually, who do it too. But we’ve all been kind of doing this on the side, and we’ve talked here and there about maybe turning this into some kind of business rather than just a side hustle. We have a couple of options, right? We could come together and form a very traditional business, or we could form a worker owned co-op. If we had a worker owned pet sitting cooperative, we would all work there, but we would all decide the direction of the organization. We would decide how we were going to pay ourselves, we would decide whether that meant we all made the same wage or if we all collectively agreed to some other pay structure. We would all make decisions about what it takes to become a new member.

Ondine:               So, you can’t have a person then who is going rogue and making all of the decisions for an organization and having that negatively impact the other people who work there. In a hierarchy, you have executive leadership who make decisions about policies and about practices and about really they shape the culture of the workplace, and employees that have less power have very little influence of that. And you know, we’ve talked a lot about situations where people up high make these rules or these policies, and they’re so out of touch with what is going to happen on the ground. A lot of times social workers are left to implement policies that don’t actually work in practice. You wouldn’t see that in a worker owned cooperative situation, because everybody would have been involved in the setup.

Drew:                   That was a much better explanation and example than whatever the hell I was trying to reach for, so thank you.

Ondine:               That’s okay, you’re welcome.

Drew:                   That was really well done. Thanks.

Ondine:               It can take a sec to get there, you know?

Drew:                   No, that was excellent.

Ondine:               So, why… we try to do this every time. I hope we do an okay job. Why would this matter for social workers? I think my example shared may be a little bit of that, but let’s dig deeper.

Drew:                   I’m going to refer to the previous episode about labor unions, where that’s kind of a collective that happens under that hierarchical structure. This is kind of a similar thing, just taken out of that hierarchical structure, and that is the structure now, right? I think for me, this is important as a social worker and also as an anti-capitalist, because this is leveraging more power to people who are doing the work.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   I think there isn’t a social worker taking a breath in today who is not in touch with that case load that never gets smaller, that 50, 60 hour work week that just never seems to relent.

Ondine:               Right, whereas a labor union would help people collectively bargain with the bosses. You are all bosses in a cooperative situation. You know? Co-ops exist today. They exist all over the place in different functions within capitalism. Co-ops can generate profit, so they’re not anti-capitalist in that sense.

Drew:                   Right.

Ondine:               But they are a different way of organizing a business that is, I think, more ideal.

Drew:                   And I think they’re anti-capitalist in the American sense of it, where it is to extract as much work as possible for as much profit as possible, regardless of the working conditions that you’re creating for people.

Ondine:               And capitalism in our workplaces really promotes and encourages competition.

Drew:                   Yeah, yeah.

Ondine:               And individuality, and that doesn’t fly when you’re all worker/owners in a co-op and have the same amount of power.

Drew:                   We’ve talked before about how things like competition and individuality are symptoms of a certain something in our culture, haven’t we?

Ondine:               We have, yeah. What is it? I think it begins with a W.

Drew:                   I’ll take white supremacy culture for 400, Alex. You have one final jeopardy.

Ondine:               I have won it. We can always revisit our code of ethics, right?

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               That’s always a worthwhile place to ground ourselves, I think. At least the NASW, National Association of Social Workers, American Code of Ethics, in which we’re supposed to be focused heavily on issues like poverty and unemployment and discrimination. This falls under our ethical principle of fighting against injustice, social injustice. Well, the last episode we did about labor organizing touched on that issue, and so does this. Right? What is one way that we can fight against unemployment, workplace discrimination and poverty? Well, helping people form cooperative workplaces is one, and ourselves.

Drew:                   And I think it is difficult to start a business.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   You know? There’s a lot of risk in it, but I think the way we commonly think about it is that one person going out on their own and starting that restaurant or starting that garage. Nobody works on cars anymore because they’re computers, but you know what I mean, right?

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   Whereas the cooperative, I think you kind of share that risk too, right?

Ondine:               You do.

Drew:                   Because it’s like people with the same interest, the same ambitions, and the same goals, so you mentioned dog walkers earlier, I think personal trainers too. These are usually disparate working people renting out space in this gym here, that gym there, and it would be hard to go and open your own gym on your own.

Ondine:               That’s right. It would be expensive.

Drew:                   It would be really expensive. But let’s say you got five personal trainers who are renting out places someplace, paying rent basically to use equipment and space, but now you’ve got five people, you’re just combining interest and business plan, but also I think this is the thing that sticks to me about cooperatives. It’s not just that and it’s not just these capital terms, but it’s also routed in values.

Ondine:               Yes.

Drew:                   And I think that’s the important thing about cooperatives, is that you’re also forming this mission around values. Obviously the goal here is to make some money, but you’re also building community.

Ondine:               I love that.

Drew:                   And that’s what I like the most about the idea of a cooperative.

Ondine:               I’m glad you said that, because I have on my computer open here the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives website. It talks immediately about values and that some of the values that co-op models are based on is democracy, equality, equity, solidarity. So, yeah, I don’t think a lot of for profit businesses when they’re getting off the ground are rooting their work in values like that. I could be wrong, but this feels very different.

Drew:                   For me it feels different too.

Ondine:               Also, this particular resource talks about some principles for co-ops, and I think this is really helpful in wrapping your head around what they are. But voluntary and open membership is important. Democrat member controls, we’ve talked about one person, one vote. Member economic participation, so this also means that the people who own it, they take part in generating the products or the services. Right? It’s a lot harder to exploit people who are also a part of-

Drew:                   Who are yourself.

Ondine:               Yeah, I think so. Yeah, thank you. Yeah. Another principle is autonomy and independence, and so if a co-op enters an agreement, for instance, with another organization, they do so because that’s something they chose to do on their own. Right? Unlike, say, working for a company and your shareholders are investing things any kind of way they want to and you have no say over that whatsoever.

Drew:                   I’m going to do a little self disclosure here.

Ondine:               Sure.

Drew:                   Which is that you and I and another person we know, another partner of ours, we’re in the midst of starting a cooperative. We’ve gone through those values, and I think one of the values that was really unique and available to us was moving outside of this scarcity model.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   Of business and competition, and by that I mean this idea that we just have to take whatever work we can, and we have to compete against other people, kind of getting a little turfy about stuff, and realizing that there’s enough work for us to go around and we can actually not just succeed ourselves, but incubate and support other people’s own growth as well in whatever work you’re doing.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   That’s one thing I thought was really great, because I think that’s so antithetical to how I think of a traditional American business development, is you’re just trying to put other people out of business. You know? That’s like the Walmart model. I like that cooperatives, at least in what I hope and in my own experience, rejects that.

Ondine:               Yeah. How did you learn about co-ops?

Drew:                   I kind of, I guess, was considerably late to the game. I grew up in Eastern Kentucky and I never knew what a… there was one kind of business. You know?

Ondine:               The kind a person owned.

Drew:                   The kind the person owns.

Ondine:               One person or family.

Drew:                   One person. You know? There’s a CEO, there’s a president, there’s a director. I moved to Lexington, Kentucky, to go to college, and it was probably in those first few years I was there, I learned about this place. It is a cooperative grocery store, and that didn’t make any sense to me. I understood grocery store. Right? We had those in Eastern Kentucky. I didn’t know what the cooperative thing was. I just thought, “Well, it’s a name,” or whatever. I learned about the existence of it, and it wasn’t until many years on going I learnt that actually there’s this model where there are members of the cooperative who have stakeholder, I guess you would call it, meetings. This one I think specifically was a little challenging, because then I started to learn that there are different cooperative models. So, I don’t know, I was kind of late to the game kind of learning all of this stuff.

Ondine:               Yeah. I don’t know if you were late to the game. Folks can chime up and respond, but I was never taught about cooperative models in any formal education that I experienced. I had heard of co-ops because I would buy coffee beans and the bag would say, “From a co-op in Costa Rica,” and I’m like, “Okay.” So, I started to associate cooperatives with-

Drew:                   Coffee.

Ondine:               … other people’s labor somewhere far away, agricultural labor somewhere else. Then probably about 10 years ago, someone that I was working with at the time was doing some research on a cooperative, I think they’re a manufacturing company in Spain called Mondragon. I will redact that if I’m wrong about the name or what they do. But just this huge co-op, a very different model from factory work in the United States. That kind of piqued my interest a little bit, but I’m still learning. I’m still learning, and I would love for you all to learn.

Drew:                   Well, hopefully this is the start of that. You know? We’re learning in public. This podcast is a learning process, so we’re going to continue to talk about this, and hopefully you will talk about it with us.

Ondine:               I would like to propose a couple directions for us. I wanted to chat a little bit about bringing it back again to social work and why I think we need to be having this conversation at social workers, and then I also wanted to share a couple of examples of co-ops in the world.

Drew:                   Yep.

Ondine:               Let’s talk about social workers and cooperatives and how I think we should be weaving this into our lives. We can talk about two things. One, social workers forming into cooperative businesses, and then also social workers working with their clients and their communities so that those folks can start cooperative autonomous worker owned businesses. Which one do you want to talk about first?

Drew:                   Let’s go with the former about why social workers should be a part of the development of cooperatives.

Ondine:               For themselves.

Drew:                   For themselves.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   I think, one, reclaiming the control over your work organization can be pretty liberating, especially if you’re basing that on values. Right?

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   You’ve got each other’s back. There’s not going to be just budget cuts and one person doesn’t have a job. Everybody, again, takes that risk, takes the hard times with the good times. I also think about specifically with social workers, how much a negative work environment trickles down to our clients. There are a lot of behavioral health clinics that-

Ondine:               I knew you were going to go this way, yeah.

Drew:                   Well, it’s a pretty easy one, and I imagine it’s a common one. But there are a lot of behavioral health clinics that will almost be like mills of prescriptions to just have people come in, do a 15 minute assessment, and then go. Whatever your feelings are about it, for me personally, that would not be very rewarding to be able to just see somebody every two months for 15 minutes to refill their prescription, and also I wonder about the ethical obligations of checking in on that person to see how they’re doing with that medication. This system that wasn’t really designed with your input says you’ve got to see this many clients or this many patients in a certain day, and you just have to farm these people out and keep the gears going. I think not having control over that, it’s going to have some negative impacts, right? This is somewhat also controlled by insurance companies, which is a whole other thing.

Ondine:               But, no, you’re right though. My therapist who I see, I ended up seeing her through one of these big behavioral health organisations where they had lots of social workers and psychologists employed doing counseling, but then also psychiatric nurse practitioners and psychiatrists who were doing medication management. I think they’re also doing some… I don’t know, maybe some drug testing now. They do a lot. My therapist eventually left to do her own thing, and she told me part of it was that that particular institution, it’s a for profit mental health behavioral health clinic, and the owners want to make a profit.

Ondine:               So, she had to see as many clients as was possible in a day, and it caused her to feel like she couldn’t spend the time, like you’re saying, with the people that maybe needed it more, and it was hard to work people in if there was a crisis. It also just created this culture in the space where people were kind of frenzied and where it was easy to then start to feel burnt out. We’ve talked about this, you eluded to this, when we’re burnt out, that impacts the folks that we’re there to serve. So, yeah, what you’re talking about is for real.

Drew:                   I also, as having been a medical patient of people, patients know when you are trying to rush them out.

Ondine:               They sure do.

Drew:                   And that is a shitty feeling. You know?

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   To feel like you’re taking up somebody’s time because you’re sick.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   This vision of what a cooperative is kind of will start to mitigate that because you can say, “Okay, we have this many hours. We’re going to try to see this many people in these [inaudible 00:21:33] and see if this is beneficial to them.” But, again, all the workers would be-

Ondine:               Have a say.

Drew:                   … having a say in it.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   and I think that’s one thing where this cooperative model is really important to be ethically accountable as a social worker.

Ondine:               A lot of social workers too work with interdisciplinary teams, and so in a hospital setting, the social worker works with doctors and nurses and whoever else. In a cooperative setting, all those people would have the same voice and the same power. I’ve heard some social worker friends of mine who have worked in medical settings talk about how it can be really challenging sometimes to work with doctors. No shade to doctors or whatever out there. I know some great doctors, but y’all went to a lot of school and you paid a lot of money for it, but sometimes you act like you know more than the rest of us.

Drew:                   And that’s the hierarchy that exists, right?

Ondine:               Right. So, you could start a cooperative healthcare clinic, right? Where you have nurses and doctors and psychiatrists and social workers all working on a team together but with everybody having the same say. That would be a very different environment to work in.

Drew:                   Because you’re there on those values foremost, people aren’t going to undercut you or talk down to you if you’re trying to speak up against somebody who might have higher education than you.

Ondine:               And I want to be very clear, too, that we are not in any way suggesting that if you create a co-op, then there will never be any conflict and everything’s going to be rosy and it’s this perfect world, right? I have been on teams with people who I adore who are value aligned. We are just really great together and we have still gotten into some pretty tense arguments before or disagreements, because that’s the nature of working with people. So, I just wanted to make sure nobody’s like, “They’re saying if we start a co-op, then nobody will fight with each other anymore.”

Drew:                   All of your problems are going away.

Ondine:               But what we’re talking about is power.

Drew:                   Yeah, and shared power.

Ondine:               Shared power.

Drew:                   Yeah, exactly, which I think as social workers, we should be those people breaking down power structure that affect our clients and also our co-workers. If you’re a social worker that has a lot of cultural privilege, I would say it’s your responsibility to challenge the institutions that give you that privilege and that power, because while you have that, other people are being denied it.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   So, again, these are the things that cooperatives can help mitigate. I’m not saying fix, but I’m saying mitigate because we all bring, like you said, bring our own personal biases and inner personal problems too.

Ondine:               We are driving this train towards a decolonized world, and this is just one of the stops along the way.

Drew:                   Yep.

Ondine:               A cooperative stop. Could we maybe talk a little bit now about why it would be really useful for social workers to work with communities and clients so that they can start their own cooperatives?

Drew:                   I’ll start by talking about something I hate.

Ondine:               I can’t wait. What is it?

Drew:                   I don’t know how many times I’ve seen organizations, non profits, committing this really terrible offense where they are going to poor communities and offering financial education classes.

Ondine:               Oh my gosh, yeah.

Drew:                   I don’t know how many people in different places have to say it, but poor people don’t need financial education and budgeting help.

Ondine:               Poor people actually budget their money really well.

Drew:                   Yeah, and unfortunately poor people are usually keenly aware of what they’re not paying in order to pay something else.

Ondine:               That’s right.

Drew:                   It’s belittling to do that.

Ondine:               Right, because the problem here is these people don’t have access to enough money.

Drew:                   They don’t have access to enough money.

Ondine:               Not getting paid enough at their jobs.

Drew:                   Not getting paid enough at your jobs, not having job security. Let’s forget about trying to tell people that they’re doing things wrong, and instead try to organize them in a way that they can come around to maybe other clients of yours to start something like a cooperative where they can start to make their own capital, their own money, develop their own supportive work relationships. That’s the financial literacy part right there, is you’re just helping people make their own jobs.

Ondine:               Right.

Drew:                   Not helping them go out and find a second part-time job at another fast food place.

Ondine:               Make their own jobs in a situation where they’re going to have power and control, but also build community with other people.

Drew:                   Right, yep.

Ondine:               Yeah. Man, those financial literacy classes, gosh. There are so many different folks who listen to this podcast, and I know you all have different backgrounds and experiences, and some of you will probably have gotten a lot out of Dave Ramsay. He’s lifted up a lot as this financial management guru type. I’ll tell you what, that shit just pisses me off. I mean, we don’t talk about ourselves… I mean, we kind of talk about ourselves a little bit on this podcast, but not a ton of disclosure, but I have been so much in the shit when it comes to not having money that I’ve donated plasma because I just don’t have money.

Drew:                   Yeah, you’ve still got the scars on your arms from plasma.

Ondine:               Yeah. In those moments of my life, if somebody had been like, “If you would just eat beans and rice and rice and beans and put your money in envelopes, then things would be better for you,” and I’ve just got to tell you, that’s just some bullshit. I really appreciate you lifting that up.

Drew:                   We should be fortunate more people aren’t just slapping the taste out of our mouth for telling them that they just need budgeting classes and financial literacy classes because you can’t ever pay your rent on time. When I was facing eviction-

Ondine:               You don’t see rich people going to the bank to get money to buy 10 houses being told they need a financial literacy class, but just because you have money, doesn’t mean that you’re somehow better at managing it.

Drew:                   No.

Ondine:               Hello, middle class America who’s living well outside of their means.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               Anyway, I digress. I just got angry and all this stuff started coming out for me that were personal.

Drew:                   Since we’re hating rich people for a second, it just reminded me of something that you’ve always said to me. It’s not about co-ops, but I think it’s funny and I want to share it.

Ondine:               Okay, go ahead.

Drew:                   But when we’ll see people driving and have… you know what I’m going to say.

Ondine:               I do.

Drew:                   We’ll see people driving and it’s a Porsche, but it’s some stupid looking SUV-

Ondine:               It’s like a weird SUV Porscha.

Drew:                   … mini SUV but kind of a station wagon sort of thing. What you always say is, “That’s a waste of a Porsche. That’s a waste of BMW,” and it’s one thing you said is… what is it? “With all that money, you still can’t buy taste.”

Ondine:               Oh my god.

Drew:                   I love that. I think of that every time I drive to work and I’m like, “Look at that fucking thing. Oh my god.”

Ondine:               Okay. Let’s get back in.

Drew:                   Yes, okay.

Ondine:               I want to talk about in addition to this idea that… so, financial literacy, whatever, a lot of social workers have worked with folks who have been criminalized. Right? When I say criminalized, these are people who have been pushed out of society for multiple reasons, maybe because they are undocumented, because they have been slapped with a felony conviction. It’s really hard for folks who have had felonies before to rent a house, to start a job or start employment. I mean, so many job applications ask about criminal background and will bar you from employment even if whatever that happened to you has nothing to do with the job that you’re going to do.

Drew:                   However long it was ago.

Ondine:               Yeah, yeah. I know several folks with felony histories who have had to start their own businesses because they can’t get hired on at a lot of places. And there’s been initiatives, like some of you may have heard of initiatives called ban the box, trying to remove that question from job applications. In a cooperative situation, it wouldn’t matter if a person had been criminalized and had felony or whatever else, because they could still start a cooperative business with folks.

Drew:                   This is so much more productive too than trying to be a social worker and trying really hard to find a job that will hire somebody without asking about any criminal convictions or background. You’re just helping somebody create their own job in their own community, possibly in a way that they’re going to be able to thrive better than if you did find them a job somewhere else, that unicorn that will work with folks who have been criminalized.

Ondine:               And oftentimes those jobs don’t pay well.

Drew:                   They don’t, they don’t, because people know that this is your last stop.

Ondine:               Right, exactly.

Drew:                   It’s exploitative. Instead of working harder to try to find those few and far between job positions at traditional businesses for folks who have been criminalized, this is a really great way to actually empower people and franchise them.

Ondine:               To help them in a really tangible way, right?

Drew:                   Help them in a really tangible way, yeah.

Ondine:               And as you all are listening, you may be asking, “Well then how do we do this?” Right? “How do we help people start co-ops?” I think the first step is educating yourself about the difference between cooperative model businesses, worker owned cooperative specifically, and we’ll share lots of resources with you so that you can kind of wrap your head around that. But we also want to make sure that you know that there are people who are really excited about this, and in other parts of the world, cooperatives are more common than in the United States. But we have loan funds here in the U.S, multiple loan funds who are interested in developing a different kind of system, right?

Drew:                   More democratic.

Ondine:               More democratic and autonomously controlled by workers. So, there are funds who will give people low and sometimes no interest loans, often loans that are risk free, so, for instance, if you show your business model and you get a loan but if you are not successful, you do not have to pay the loan back.

Drew:                   And the cool thing about that is you define success for yourself.

Ondine:               That’s right.

Drew:                   That’s not imposed on you. Success might just be traditionally thought of keeping the lights on and breaking even, but if that’s not successful for you, then that’s not successful in terms of having to pay that stuff back.

Ondine:               Yeah. And, gosh, it’s been a minute since I’ve talked to anybody starting a business here in town, but I think a traditional route normally is to put together a business plan and then you take it to a bank, right? Because you want to get a loan, especially if your business requires some… like if you needed a building, for example.

Drew:                   Like an asset?

Ondine:               Like assets, yeah. If your business required assets that you don’t have, well, when you apply for that loan, they’re also going to take a look at your credit.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               And if you have not the best credit or even just kind of okay credit, they may not give you the loan that you need. Again, you’re on the hook for that if this doesn’t succeed. With these loan funds, many of the loan funds, I probably shouldn’t speak for all of the loan funds investing in cooperative business, but for several of the ones that I am familiar with, you also do not have to prove a certain credit score in order to qualify. This really is a way for folks who have been cut out of opportunities to have businesses and to earn their own money to be able to do that.

Drew:                   You know, it just occurred to me too the good thing about that, not even asking about people’s credit score, is that traditional loan that you get from a bank, that interest you pay back is going to be determined by factors like your credit score and what you’re able to put forth and all of this, whereas these cooperative loan funds sometimes have very transparent rates of what you pay back. The terms of how long you take to pay it back are very negotiable, and finally… well, shit, I don’t know that there was a finally. Maybe it was just two things that I was trying to say.

Ondine:               That’s okay.

Drew:                   But, yeah, those two things that are… no, no, no, no, no. I know what I was going to say.

Ondine:               What were you going to say?

Drew:                   Those two things, those mechanisms and traditional bank lending we know are really powerful but hard to suss out mechanisms of racial discrimination in this country too. I mean, whether it’s redlining or starting businesses, banks don’t want to loan money to black and brown people.

Ondine:               No.

Drew:                   And this is a way to circumvent that.

Ondine:               Yeah, yeah. We will share some links to some funds. I just wanted to name a few. There’s one called The Working World fund. I’ve got their website pulled up. I’m just kind of looking at a list of some of the projects they fund, some of the cooperatives they’ve funded, and it’s just all over the place. They’ve provided cooperatives loans to do things like remodeling buildings, to grow their businesses, to buy out of parent companies. That’s a thing too. Let’s say you work as a hair stylist in a business and you’ve got four or five other hair stylists there but you’re all contractors and the person who owns the salon doesn’t want to do it anymore but are willing to sell you the business, you guys could come together then and buy it collectively and turn it into a worker owned cooperative.

Drew:                   That’s cool.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   That’s really cool.

Ondine:               And so The Working World can potentially give you and your new salon co-op the loan you need to actually purchase the business so that you can transform it into a worker owned co-op, which I think is pretty cool. There’s also a… when I was kind of digging around for this episode, I came across The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance fund, and they are a non profit co-op association of black farmers, land owners and cooperatives. So, this is here in the U.S. There was one place you’d come up with.

Drew:                   Seed Commons, and I was going to ask you what you were looking at. I can’t remember if they were part of The Working World loan fund or vice versa, but anyways, another one that you might see if Seed Commons, and then also The Worker Ownership loan fund, which is a part of… again, I don’t know which comes first in these, the chicken or the egg? But The Worker Ownership loan fund is associated with the shared capital cooperative. Sometimes those loan amounts range from 15,000 I saw on The Worker Ownership loan fund, all the way up to 550,000.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   So it’s not just limited to low asset low risk things.

Ondine:               That’s right. Yeah. Yeah. I’m glad you brought that up, because I think folks listening for whom this is brand new, you could potentially get a $200,000 loan if your business plan is solid.

Drew:                   I don’t want to say it’s too good to be true, but that’s what everybody says.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   I used to work at a DV shelter and I would talk to survivors who were living in shelter about this is a thing. They’re like, “What’s the trick?”

Ondine:               Yeah, what’s the catch? Nothing’s for free.

Drew:                   Yeah, because a lot of these-

Ondine:               We’ve all been indoctrinated to think that there has to be a catch.

Drew:                   Yeah, something’s weighting the catches off guard. I would say sometimes, because these are folks who maybe have moved around a lot, just don’t have a lot of start up money anyways, certainly don’t have any work history because maybe they were kept from working and all of this, and this was just an easy way to… not an easy way, this was an effective way to pitch to them, like, “Here’s how you can consider working for yourself, because you and those two people over there, y’all are already doing each other’s hair and people are paying you to do hair.” This is a really great way to be able to safely take that risk to start to work on your own together.

Ondine:               Yeah, yeah.

Drew:                   Your own but together. That should be our subtitle.

Ondine:               Your own but together.

Drew:                   Our own… no, that doesn’t work, does it?

Ondine:               This is getting weird.

Drew:                   Yeah, I’m sorry.

Ondine:               I think we’ve provided lots of good examples, but I’d like to share a few more tangible examples of co-ops.

Drew:                   You found a really cool one about-

Ondine:               A few.

Drew:                   … yeah, actually, all of them are cool.

Ondine:               Yeah, I think they’re all really great. In addition to cooperative business, there’s also cooperative housing models, where folks own property together and everybody has equal say in how that property is managed and used, and they live there too. A cool example that I found of that is called the Dulce Lomita Mobile Home Cooperative. I think this is in North Carolina, but basically these folks came together and purchased… my understanding is that they purchased the mobile home park that they had been living in. It had been sold, they didn’t get a lot of notice that it had been sold, and people were essentially going to end up homeless.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               Yeah, I know. You work in housing, this is just probably pretty close to you at your heart. But at any rate, they were able to secure the funding to basically purchase the mobile home park themselves and become resident owners.

Drew:                   That’s kind of the buyout model that you were talking about a second ago.

Ondine:               And I pulled up the principles of their mobile home park to kind of see a little bit about how it works for them now. Basically if the cooperative ever sells anything, 13% of that profit is invested into the community of the mobile home cooperative, and then 87% is distributed amongst all the members based on the years they’ve lived in the co-op. So, again, there’s shared profit in this model, and folks wouldn’t just be able to sell their house to whomever and then they’d take all that money and they’d run. Right? These people get to own their homes and have that investment in that asset, but they’re all doing it collectively.

Drew:                   This sounds a little bit like land trust.

Ondine:               It’s a little bit like that, yeah.

Drew:                   Not the same, right? But that same almost protection that you get from it.

Ondine:               Yeah. The way they’ve organized is that the decision making is through consensus minus one. Anyone who’s been in a consensus based decision making situation probably knows that it can be challenging, but I think it’s also incredibly rewarding. So, for them, each household equals one member and equals one vote, and decisions are made at monthly member meetings. So, yeah, I think that was really cool. I can share some more about them. Another example that I found, which was exciting to me that I wanted to make sure to reference, is a healthcare cooperative owned by immigrants in Wisconsin. It’s called Roots for Change or Raices para el Cambio, and it is the first immigrant cooperative that markets community wide culturally aligned doula services. They also run a postpartum peer support group, holistic wellness workshops, and then events, just sort of cultural heritage and traditional events. So, all six of the women who own the cooperative are first time business owners.

Drew:                   Nice.

Ondine:               Four of them offer services as certified doulas. In reading through this, these women all worked for this organization as health promotion folks, so they go out into the community and talk about healthcare. They’re not nurses or doctors, but they have been trained to talk about health related stuff from a community peer to peer perspective. So, they were doing this together but realized that they could come together and form a cooperative and actually have a business home to do this with each other, and like you said earlier, assume the risk of starting a business as a group, but then also share all the profits. Because if everybody acting as an independent person, it’s just a lot harder to make it out there. Right? So, I thought this was really neat. It reminded me, because it’s about healthcare, again, about all the social workers I know who are therapists who are by themselves in some rinky dink little office.

Drew:                   I was just thinking how just transferable or applicable that is to so many social workers, yeah. Because my therapist is in her own little office, right? All these folks just kind of in this disparate connection of places were like, “It’s an expensive to rent an office.”

Ondine:               Absolutely, yeah.

Drew:                   And just to think that, okay, even if you were able to rent a small office and just come up with basically different divisions of who’s going to use it when and all of that could really mitigate a lot of the costs that you have to take when you go out on your own, because that can be scary. That is scary to go out on your own.

Ondine:               It’s scary. It’s risky.

Drew:                   You shouldn’t have to do it on your own. You don’t have to do it on your own.

Ondine:               Yeah. When these women were asked why they decided to do this, they said the idea of the co-op came because co-ops have a lot of the principles that they stand for. They cited mutual education, taking care of the environment, leaving a legacy behind and cooperating with others as a model that was really important to them. The third thing I pulled up-

Drew:                   That’s so cool.

Ondine:               I know. Isn’t that neat?

Drew:                   It is.

Ondine:               I just learned about the Cooperative Home Care Associates, which is based in New York. It is one of the largest worker owned co-ops in the whole country.

Drew:                   Wow.

Ondine:               They train folks to do home healthcare work. I guess it’s located in the Bronx, and they started with just 12 home health aides, but now they employ 2,000 people.

Drew:                   Holy cow.

Ondine:               I think that’s also interesting. The more I learn about co-ops, you can do it on this very small scale.

Drew:                   It’s not just a dozen people though all the time, right?

Ondine:               Yeah, yeah. It could be three or four or five people, it could be 2,000 people. How that gets built out obviously is going to be very different. Right? But there’s so much potential and opportunity.

Drew:                   There is, yeah. I love it, I love it. So, as we kind of wind down, I want to talk a little bit about what you might think about if you’re intrigued enough to say, “Could I start a co-op?” You really don’t need anything to start the cooperative itself, right? You and some folks that you identify with on values and mission and all of that can get together and do it, but obviously you need money to do it. We mentioned the loan funds because it’s a supportive system out there already. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel and just save money and to do all this, because life is going to attack you and you’re going to need that money for something else.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   This is available and it’s out there. It is definitely worth pursuing if you’re thinking about starting a cooperative. When we’ve done ours, I have never run a business. I have never opened a business. I think the closest I’ve gotten is making my budget in a spreadsheet and getting really excited about it on the first of the month. Then about the fourth of the month I just ignore it for the next 25 days or so until the next month, and I get really excited again. I’m not a good business person.

Ondine:               I started laughing because I’m thinking about the show The Office and how Michael Scott, who is writing a book about being a manager and it’s called “Somehow I Manage”, that’s how I approach personal budgeting.

Drew:                   So it can be daunting to have to write up something like a business plan, but at least in my experience, in our experience with this, the cooperative loan fund has been really helpful in that technical assistance to doing that stuff, because-

Ondine:               They’ve been really working with us to put together a business plan, The caliber of a business plan that a bank would expect, right? But also very kindly kind of cultivating our own understanding about things like marketing plans.

Drew:                   Yeah, I was going to say that.

Ondine:               And profit loss stuff. They’re invested in us being able to do it. The bank doesn’t care if you bring in your business proposal and it doesn’t seem sound and they don’t give you the loan. They’ll find somebody else to lend money to. It’s a very different experience.

Drew:                   It’s nice to get that kind of coaching or that guidance from somebody that’s excited about the idea of cooperatives as well. Get somebody who already believes in it, you know? I just think there’s something special about that. Like you said, you ain’t going to find that anyway at fith third bank or JP Morgan Chase. I mean, they might be nice to you and they might have those fun candy dishes you can eat out of, but I doubt you’re going to get that kind of support there.

Ondine:               Yeah. So, let me just recap where we’ve been.

Drew:                   Okay.

Ondine:               We talked about co-ops, how they’re different from business models that I think most people are used to. We’re really encouraging you all to learn more about cooperative models to consider creating co-ops as social workers, to think about what can you do as a social worker to help other people start co-ops. Let’s see co-ops as an alternative to financial literacy courses or shitty jobs for people with felonies and people who don’t have credit. Let’s actually explore something different for folks.

Drew:                   I think also we have to continue to experiment with these things like cooperatives, because the more we’re able to make traditional business capitalist models less comfortable or less familiar, the better off we’re going to be at working towards this mission of decolonization.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   I want us to get to the point that cooperatives are so familiar and so comfortable that the first question that would come up is why didn’t you do this as a cooperative?

Ondine:               Why would I ever need a boss?

Drew:                   Why would I need a boss? That’s the place I want to get to with this, and I think that’s where this fits in with what we’re supposed to do as social workers, what we want to do as social workers, is to basically make greed as uncomfortable and unflattering as possible.

Ondine:               Yeah, yeah. I like that. We should end with that.

Drew:                   Let’s do it, okay.

Ondine:               I will make sure that you guys get all the info I can send online, but tell us your stories. If you are a worker owner in a co-op, I’d love to hear about it.

Drew:                   Yeah. All right, thank you. Get your co-op going. Check in with us when it’s awesome.

Ondine:               Take care, everybody.

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